Covid inquiry delivers devastating critique of our government – Mary Kelly

What confidence can we have that the failings laid bare over Covid and RHI won’t be repeated again

Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly

Mary Kelly is an Irish News columnist and former producer of current affairs output on Radio Ulster and BBC NI political programme Hearts and Minds

Brenda Campbell KC makes closing submissions to the Covid-19 Inquiry sitting in Belfast
Brenda Campbell KC makes closing submissions to the Covid-19 Inquiry sitting in Belfast

“Delay, dysfunction and dereliction of duty.” Was there ever a more devastating critique of how government functions in this place than the words delivered by Brenda Doherty, of NI Bereaved Families for Justice, at the end of the Covid inquiry hearings in Belfast?

The whole political class, the NI Civil Service, the over-reaching Chief Medical Officer, years of under-funding, lack of planning, political point scoring, misuse of the cross-community vote, sectarianism, disputes over following Ireland or GB regulations: all contributed to an administration that was not up to the job of protecting its people in a pandemic.

Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill wore sackcloth and ashes to express – finally – her remorse for attending Bobby Storey’s funeral and the impact it had on families of Covid victims and on public compliance with the regulations at the time.

First Minister of Northern Ireland Michelle O’Neill leaves the Clayton Hotel in Belfast
First Minister Michelle O’Neill leaves the Covid inquiry taking place at Clayton Hotel in Belfast (Liam McBurney/PA)

Arlene Foster, meanwhile, displayed arrogance and snippiness. Tone deafness worked for the RHI Inquiry, she must have reckoned, let’s give it another go.

And if her performance didn’t make you wonder what qualities are needed for enoblement to a seat in the Lords, then along came former education minister Peter, now Lord Weir, whose nasty jibes at Naomi Long and Nichola Mallon were straight from the school playground.

Baroness Arlene Foster gives evidence to the Covid inquiry

Corrosive, mean and hostile, the families’ counsel, Brenda Campbell, described such WhatsApp chats. But at least the Duppers didn’t wipe their phones like the Shinners did.

What must relatives of those lost in the pandemic have made of this debacle? It should be a moment of self-examination by all those politicians and civil servants who failed us. It should never happen again.

But who has confidence that it won’t? There will be no sanctions against anyone responsible. When it comes to the next election, the tribal voting will continue as normal.

But we aren’t the only ones. As a New York court hears details of Donald Trump’s payments to his dodgy lawyer to keep a porn star he’d had an affair with silent, it appears his popularity with the American voters is actually increasing.

He clearly wasn’t exaggerating when he said he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his ratings wouldn’t suffer.

Former US president Donald Trump sits in the courtroom with lawyers Todd Blanche, left, and Emil Bove at Manhattan Criminal Court before his trial in New York (Michael M Santiago/Pool Photo via AP)
Former US president Donald Trump at Manhattan Criminal Court (Michael M. Santiago/AP)


There have been a few recent scandals that have cried to the heavens for justice: the criminalisation of innocent post office operators, still waiting for proper compensation; and even worse, the appalling treatment of those given contaminated blood, even when the risks were already known.

More than 30,000 people in the UK, including 380 children, were infected with HIV and Hepatitis C after being given imported blood products in the 1970s and ′80s. The inquiry has been sitting since 2019, yet only 4,000 have so far received interim compensation.

‘Significant’ announcements on infected blood compensation could be made in the next few weeks, a charity has learned
Infected blood campaigners (Victoria Jones/PA)

Then there is the injustice of IPP sentences – imprisonment for public protection, which allowed courts to hand out indeterminate sentences for a range of crimes, many of them petty, and suggested a minimum time a prisoner could serve.

Offenders can be on licence for up to 99 years upon release, meaning they can be recalled at any time – often for behaviour that is not criminal. In Northern Ireland they were called Prisoners detained at the Secretary of State’s Pleasure (SOSPs).

Lord David Blunkett, former home secretary
Lord David Blunkett, former home secretary (Stefan Rousseau/PA)

Introduced in 2003 by Labour Home Secretary David Blunkett, as part of the party’s “tough on crime” agenda, he now admits they were a mistake.

One man has served more than 16 years for stealing a bike, another is still in prison 11 years after he stole a mobile phone.

But although they were scrapped 10 years ago, 3,000 prisoners are still being held without a release date in sight. The absence of hope has led to several taking their own lives.

Why must it take so long to right a wrong?